Since fielding concerns from both pilots and residents at a nearly four-hour public hearing last week, the East Hampton Town Board will make a decision on a series of regulations aiming to cut airport noise in a few weeks’ time, with an expectation to tweak the new regulations once the 2015 summer season ends.
“I think the Town Board is reflecting on all the comments and everything that has happened until now, including the comments at the public hearing,” Supervisor Larry Cantwell said this week, noting that action is not likely until sometime in April. “I think the Town Board deserves time to reflect on it.”
Mr. Cantwell also said the proposed restrictions at East Hampton Airport, if enacted by the board, likely will be tweaked once the summer is over based on what they learn about the impact, especially from those most affected by airport noise—making the summer of 2015 a trial run of sorts.
He defended the goal of the curfews and restrictions, which particularly target helicopters: “If it is going to have a meaningful impact on noise and complaints, absent quieter technology, you’ve got to look at the number of movements in and out of the airport to accomplish a meaningful reduction.”
If the Town Board approves the package of new rules, there would be a year-round ban on flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. for all types of aircraft; a ban on aircraft labeled as “noisy” year-round, from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m.; a complete ban on helicopters during holidays and weekends between May 1 and September 30; and more limits on “noisy” aircraft, allowing only two operations in any week during the summer season, meaning one takeoff and one landing.
Just a month after they unveiled the four new resolutions to restrict airport operations, Town Board members heard from both the aviation community and those affected by airport-related noise at a public hearing on Thursday, March 12.
Some speakers at the hearing, which drew hundreds from all over the region to LTV Studios in Wainscott, said the board still needs to answer two outstanding questions: how the airport could financially sustain itself, given the potential impact of the regulations on air traffic; and how other airports in the area might be affected by overflow air traffic resulting from the tough new rules at East Hampton Airport.
Many residents, of both East Hampton Town and from other affected communities on both the North Fork and the South Fork, pleaded with the Town Board to stay the course and enact the proposed rules. Pilots and small-business owners, on the other hand, warned of unintended consequences—namely, the potential closure of the airport and a major blow to the area’s economy.
“This is not an issue that should be pitting residents against businesses. It is an issue that should be able to be resolved in a way that serves all,” said Anna Throne-Holst, supervisor of neighboring Southampton Town, who urged the Town Board to hold off until the impacts are known.
Residents in the western half of the town have complained of noise from overhead traffic, especially helicopters, in the summer, she said.
“I don’t think we should be here belittling how badly this has affected quality of life … but I think we also have to understand that this is an issue where we cannot discount the undue consequences,” she continued. “I’m in my ninth year of being on the Southampton Town Board, and one thing you learned quickly is to start to anticipate undue consequences of what you put forward.”
The effect the proposed restrictions would have on the airport’s finances is still unknown. The Town Board has not yet gotten a recommendation from its Budget and Financial Advisory Committee, because the committee members say they could not come to an agreement on financial projections. Some members of the committee, like David Gruber, who has long been an opponent of airport noise, suggest that the BFAC in months past found that the airport could support itself for up to five years with some regulation, but that did not take into account legal fees that could result from enacting sweeping legislation that the aviation industry likely would challenge in court.
After presenting comments last week at the public hearing, one member of that committee, Peter Wadsworth, submitted a letter to the Town Board suggesting several ways to tweak the proposed regulations, which would lessen the potential for costly and time-consuming litigation.
“There are indications that the summer weekend ban on helicopters may not be solving the problem it is designed to solve, or may represent a bazooka where a rifle would do,” Mr. Wadsworth wrote. “The prospect of big-time litigation could ultimately cost East Hampton taxpayers millions of dollars … moreover, it is conceivable that the town could be constrained from even implementing the summer weekend ban for years to come while the litigation works its way through the court system. The prospect of years of litigation with no noise abatement benefit is depressing, at best.”
Mr. Wadsworth recommended a number of changes, such as a slot system that would limit the number of helicopters that could land in any hour and day, especially during the weekends, and a moratorium on helicopters on weekends and during the month of August, instead of every summer weekend.
He said that, combined with mandatory higher altitudes and alternative routes approaching the airport, would be a more rational solution.
"As one of the original proponents of airport noise abatement, especially for helicopters, which cause approximately two thirds of all airport related noise complaints, I commend Councilwoman Burke-Gonzalez and the airport noise subcommittee for proposing an aggressive noise reduction program for consideration by the Town Board in the form of four local laws," Mr. Wadsworth wrote. "Wisdom comes with time, and the Town Board has not had much time to consider the proposed laws, the unintended or unexpected consequences, or possible alternatives or modifications."
Springs resident Zachary Cohen, who sits on many town committees, also submitted a letter to the board last week pleading that the town step back and consider the impacts, and how a slot system, or at least phasing in the regulations, could better serve the airport and the community.
“If East Hampton imposed all four restrictions this summer, and a surprise recession hit next year, and we were limited in the landing fee increases, and we were deep into expensive lawsuits, I would be hesitant to say that the airport fund could get by without outside money from the general fund, from other towns, or private sources,” he wrote. “Are we preparing actions for the bad-case scenarios? It does not appear so. I end with a plea to continue study for a few more weeks but with broader scope. Brilliant people can be wrong. Have we prepared for that outcome?”
The board has not yet completed its diversion study, looking at what Montauk Airport, Gabreski Airport and the Southampton Village heliport could face should the rules be put in place in East Hampton.
At the hearing, Jeremy Samuelson, the executive director of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, and others expressed concern for the possible overflow of traffic to other area airports. Mr. Samuelson criticized town officials for not including the Montauk Airport in the airport noise subcommittee report.
“The diversion study is a step in the right direction,” he said. “I hope it adds a detailed and meaningful analysis that is fruitful to this conversation, though I do wish it would have been available before having this public hearing … Three members of the Southampton Town Board all noted that they share our concern—the idea that if you squeeze a balloon in one spot, it will bulge out in another. Due diligence hasn’t yet been expended by the board to ensure that this won’t be a problem we will be living with this summer.”
Some speakers from the aviation community said the restrictions would wreak havoc on their livelihood and the town’s economy.
Keith Vitolo, a helicopter operator from White Plains, said he flies a small, quiet aircraft and arrives at 3,500 feet and departs at 3,000 feet, so as to make his noise impact minimal. But despite the strides he’s made to reduce noise, he says he would still be punished under the new regulations.
“I feel like I’m being victimized and discriminated against—I’m a helicopter, so I’m evil,” he said. “Last year, I did 1 percent of helicopter landings in East Hampton, and did 20 percent at Montauk Airport. I would like to keep my job and my career … please look at this more carefully before you put a ban on helicopters. I’m against the ban but for keeping your community quiet.”
But many of the noise-weary residents—some who drove from the Town of Southold—said they felt the proposed regulations are a step in the right direction and told board members not to allow the aviation community to bully them into dropping plans for the restrictions. Residents who live under flight paths and around the airport say they’ve waited long enough for relief.
“You five people have the best interest of the community at heart and on the table in front of you,” said East Hampton resident Patricia Hope. “You’re trusted, smart, experienced, and you’ve read and studied and listened to every argument by the Quiet Skies Coalition, the Group for Good Government, the Northwest Alliance, and you’ve listened to arguments, threats and scare tactics. You’ve seen all the numbers. You’re ethical people. You’re our people, and I ask you to hold fast.”
East Hampton resident Paul Keber admitted to calling the airport’s noise complaint line many times, and took offense when another speaker at the hearing, Wainscott resident Irving Paler, raised issues with the number of complaints and listed seven residents by name and how many complaints each logged.
He described what it is like for him during the summer to have to repeatedly call the complaint line: “I’m sitting with my beautiful wife outside my beautiful home on the back deck, when suddenly an overwhelming noise from a helicopter blade overhead forces me to stop speaking to wife, pick up the phone right next to us, and call the complaint line,” Mr. Keber said, adding that he often does that several times. “We were not named with the [seven] other people as ‘these people,’ but we’re proud to be part of ‘these people.’”
Despite the costs that some argue will result from enactment of the proposed regulations, others at the hearing said they want to see the new rules put into place, and let business catch up
“These resolutions embody the time-honored tradition of enacting a policy for the greater good and to help industry bring its standards up to community values,” said Kathy Cunningham, the executive director of the Quiet Skies Coalition and member of the town’s airport noise subcommittee. “We’re not asking people not to come here—we’re asking them to come quietly.”